February 2018 Member Highlight:
Professor of Macro-Sociology, Otto-von-Guericke University Magdeburg
ISQOLS Executive Committee member, Vice President of Academic Affairs, 2017-2018
ISQOLS Board of Directors member, 2017-18
- Describe your background, experience, and research as it relates to Quality-of-life studies.
I am a sociologist by training, with a keen interest in quantitative cross-national comparisons. Sociology as a discipline has since its invention been concerned with the question of social progress; QOL research provides one key perspective to provide answers: Is life getting better? Are our societies moving in the right direction? In my own research, I have dealt with several aspects of QOL, ranging from individual living conditions (e.g. a recently devised Good Life Index) and subjective well-being to more collective features such as trust and social cohesion – the quality of societies. As to my happiness research, I am particularly interested in people’s happiness “recipes” - what makes people happy with their lives, and do these ingredients differ systematically across time or space. E.g., for China we could show an impressive “monetization” of life satisfaction during the economic boom. Recently, I have also studied phenomena such as status anxiety and the role inequality plays in the generation of social ills, following – and partly challenging – the Spirit Level Theory developed by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Another part of my recent work was devoted to social cohesion. In a series of projects I conducted together with Klaus Boehnke, we developed a novel concept for measuring social cohesion, the Social Cohesion Radar. The goal was to learn more about levels and recent trends of social cohesion, as well as about its macro-level determinants and the impact on subjective well-being. We found cohesion to be hugely important for happiness and life satisfaction. Meanwhile we have two books out on social cohesion, one on the Western world (covering 34 countries), and one on Asian societies (covering 20 countries).
- What initially attracted you to the field of quality-of-life studies?
Issues of quality of life played some role already in my dissertation on social change and attitudes in post-communist societies – life satisfaction and ratings of the new regimes were among the indicators I looked at. Yet, ultimately two scholars have a huge share in attracting me to quality-of-life-studies. The first one is Wolfgang Zapf, a pioneer in the social indicators movement from Germany. He supervised my PhD, hired me afterwards, and so I became involved into comparative welfare research, first on Germany (focussing on changing QOL in the former Eastern part), later on Europe and worldwide. Wolfgang Zapf gave me a lot of opportunity to develop my research skills and to approach QOL from a genuinely sociological perspective. The second person is “Mr. Happiness”, Ruut Veenhoven. I first met him at a conference in Budapest in the late 1990s when I was a junior scholar, and I was immediately fascinated by his way to approach social change entirely from a happiness perspective – and by his engaging and quite funny presentation style. Thus, in backsight it was Zapf and Veenhoven who got me hooked on – yet there are definitely more harmful addictions than QOL research!
- What are some areas of quality-of-life studies you feel are lacking attention? Any advice for future QoL researchers?
In the last two decades, there has been an increasing emphasis on subjective QOL, particularly happiness and life satisfaction from a psychological and economic perspective. Although this shift is sociologically interesting in itself, issues of societal quality of life have not gained the attention they probably deserve: issues of social cohesion, social quality, social ills, justice, sustainability and so on. Further, the potential of a cross-national comparative perspective is often not fully exploited. More often than not, we generalize from our results gained for one single country to human behavior everywhere. We need to better contextualize many of our findings, and be more careful in declaring x to be important for human happiness, independent of time and space. Finally, connecting QOL research to more general social theories is a promising way to increase scientific impact, in particular in the social sciences.
- How long have you been a member of ISQOLS? Why did you choose to be a member of ISQOLS? How has your involvement in ISQOLS impacted your career/research/advancement in your knowledge of QoL studies?
I have been a member since 2000 sporadically, and since 2010 continuously. I choose ISQOLS because of its broad and inter-disciplinary approach to QOL. I really love to go the conferences, as there are always plenty of interesting presentations, and nice people to meet. The entire environment is very friendly and supportive, and people are eager to learn from each other. That was one reason why I decided to get involved into the work of ISQOLS, and since a number of years now I am elected member of the board of directors. ISQOLS helps me to stay connected to the research community in many ways, and one does not need to know much about Pierre Bourdieu’s social theory to realize that this sort of social capital is generally helpful for advancing a career in QOL. Admittedly, I also love to gaze at the two “golden” plates I received from ISQOLS: The Research Fellow Award in 2016, and the Award for the Best Annual Social Indicators Research Paper in 2010. Not Academy Awards, but still 🙂